Andy Lau leads an all-star cast in Tsui Hark’s historical fantasy mystery
“That was your badge 8 years ago. I’m returning it to you. You shall be my Imperial Commissioner in charge of the Phantom Flame Case. You shall work with Supreme Court to crack the case before my coronation!”
So, spontaneous combustion, eh?
Set during the Tang dynasty, in the year 689, Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is set to be crowned as the first female emperor of China, although she is disliked by many. An enormous Buddha is erected in front of the palace to honour this, but before it can be finished, one of the supervisors bursts into flames. May believe this was because he had removed some of the sacred talismans within the statue. Officers Pei Donglai and his superior Xue investigate, but they find nothing. Shortly though, Xue too bursts into flames.
The empress calls for the release of Di Renjie (Andy Lau), a detective who opposed her and was imprisoned for treason. She also sends Shangguan Jing’er (Li Bingbing), one of her favourite attendants, to keep an eye on him throughout the investigation. However, with every clue they find, the trio run into people who are trying very hard to kill them, in order prevent the case being solved before the coronation.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is something of a revisionist history story, in that several of the main characters – such as Dee, Jing’er and Empress Wu – were all real. I admit, I don’t know a lot about Di Renjie, both in historical and fictional context, so I’m going to judge Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame on its own merits, as a film without any prior knowledge of the history of these people. I’m sure that was how it was intended anyway.
Andy Lau plays a subdued Dee here, his performance careful and subtle. However, in the larger-than-life world that Hark paints, coupled with the more out-there performances by his co-stars, Lau finds himself overshadowed and unfortunately becomes one of the lesser-remembered parts of the film. Not that he lacks charisma or anything, it’s just that there’s a lot more going on around him. This centres him as the sane, relatable one but also means he’s pushed in the background of his own film.
Deng Chao is a lot of fun as the officer in charge of the case, and he works very well alongside Lau. Li Bingbing has a weird chemistry with him, and there’s supposed to be a romance (one-sided) that builds throughout with them, but it’s hard to buy. Bingbing does a good job nevertheless, but it’s Lau’s empress which steals the show. We’ve seen Carina Lau in these roles before, and she nails the ruthless no-nonsense lady in charge role.
The story is also a lot of fun, with great twists and turns. It’s a bit difficult to decipher at the beginning whether the film is intentionally leaving out details, or if some of the dialogue was lost in translation, but if you let the story play itself out, it answers everything you needed to know. What’s great here is that is lets you think you’ve figured it out, and then turns the table on you, by adding another layer, or a whole other story. Perhaps, and maybe this is spoiler territory here, some casting choices might give away the villain, but it doesn’t change your enjoyment of the story.
As expected, Tsui Hark’s direction is beautiful, as are the sets. There’s a lot of obvious CG work here, but they serve to accentuate sets as opposed to replace them entirely. The views from the giant statue are gorgeous, and one of the more interesting sets is the Phantom Bazaar, an underground city filled with mysticism where they battle a seemingly sape-shifting aggressor. Hark’s experienced direction is confident and he sets the scene solidly, imbuing each moment with a thick layer of atmosphere and visual panache. We’re also treated to a very welcome cameo by Richard Ng while we’re down there, so there’s also that.
Where it falls a bit flat, in my opinion, is the action. Whenever he is credited as action director, HK legend Sammo Hung usually doesn’t fail to deliver. And while the fight scenes in Detective Dee aren’t terrible by any measure, they’re also lacking in that wow factor that sets his work apart from others. This is potentially due to the fact that it never knows whether it wants to do kung fu action, or wuxia, so we’re left with fights where neither of those aspects is particularly strong. And here’s a thing I never thought I’d say about a Sammo Hung fight: they tend to go on for a bit too long. The story, atmosphere and acting is solid enough that the fights actually do little but add distance between scenes where the mystery is being solved. I’m not averse to a bit of action but when Dee has to fight a guy (or a bunch of deer, it gets a bit weird) every time he comes one step closer to solving the mystery, things can drag on a bit.
In the end, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a strong film, with positive moments that far outshine the negative. It was a huge success in Hong Kong, and its hard not to see why. The mystery-heavy narrative and appealing characters are more than enough to keep you waching, while the impressive visuals are just the icing on the cake. If you’re looking for a taste of the old with the new, this is the film to watch.
Verdict: Despite its middling action sequences, Detective Dee is a fun, intriguing mystery
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Rating’s System
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Violence: 6/10, depending on your tolerance for people burning alive
Talking deer: two more than you would think
Transformation sequences: two more than you would think
Villains: kind of obvious, in hindsight
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Also known as: 狄仁杰之通天帝国
Director: Tsui Hark
Writer: Chen Kuofu
Andy Lau – Detective Dee
Carina Lau – Empress Wu Zetian
Li Bingbing – Shangguan Jing’er
Deng Chao – Pei Donglai
Tony Leung Ka-fai – Shatuo
Richard Ng – Wang Lu
Teddy Kwan – Also Wang Lu
Nan Xu – Chamberlain
Xiao Chen – Lu Li